Sunday, May 30, 2010

Hypatia and "Agora" Redux


Well, it's been just over a year since I wrote my article on Alejandro Amenábar's film Agora and expressed my misgivings that it would perpetuate some Gibbonian myths about how Hypatia of Alexandria was some kind of martyr for science, how wicked Christians destroyed "the Great Library of Alexandria" in AD 391 and how her murder and the Library's destruction ushered in the Dark Ages.  That article certainly attracted some attention and stirred up emotions - so far it's racked up 4,872 page views and attracted 125 comments, many highly hostile.

Of course, when I wrote that article the film had only been screened at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival and so I was simply able to comment on what the director and star said about it in press releases and interviews and on what could be gleaned from trailers and a couple of brief clips.  Inevitably, some of those who weren't happy with what I had to say pounced on this and claimed that I couldn't criticise the movie until I'd seen it, even though I made it very clear that I wasn't criticising the film per se and that I would withhold judgement on it as a whole until I'd seen it.

Agora has now been released in both the UK and US and so is attracting rather more attention.  Since there is still no sign of when (or if) it will be released here in Australia, I decided to put aside my usual principles and download a copy from the internet so I could finally see it for myself.

The Good, the Bad and the Silly

To begin with, there's actually quite a bit to like about this movie.  The cinematography is rich and engaging and the sets combine nicely with some judicious use of CGI to give us a vivid reconstruction of late Fourth and early Fifth Century Alexandria.  At several points Amenábar pulls the camera out of the action, up into the sky for a bird's eye view of the city and then out into space to look down on the earth as a whole.  A few critics have called these the "Google Earth shots", but personally I thought it worked well as a way of noting how petty and insignificant the violent political and religious squabbles at the centre of the story actually were.  Amenábar has noted in interviews that he was originally inspired to make the movie by Carl Sagan's 1980s TV series Cosmos and these shots were a nice nod to Sagan's ability put our human concerns into a cosmic perspective (even if, as I detailed in my original article, Sagan also managed to bungle the history of Hypatia rather badly in that series).

I also thought  Rachel Weisz and most of the rest of the cast did a very good job with a story and, at times, a script that had the potential to be highly unwieldy.  The dialogue was often clunky, as it certainly can be in historical epics like this, but Weisz managed to make scenes where she expounds on the Ptolomaic cosmological model interesting and certainly captured the "self-possession and ease of manner" that Socrates Scholasticus says Hypatia was known for very nicely.

While the sets were impressively detailed, with Roman and Hellenic elements mixed with Egyptian motifs, the same can't be said for the costumes, which tended to be "generic ancient tunics and togas" rather than clothing of the specific period.  Even less thought was given to the arms and armour of the Roman troops and the warring factions.  It seems no-one can make a "Roman" film without equipping Roman soldiers in generic First Century AD helmets, swords and armour, regardless of what century the film is actually set in.  So here the Romans wear what look like left-overs from Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, with brassy-looking pseudo-First Century helmets, short gladius swords and, of course, leather lorica segmentata for armour.  It would have been nice for nitpicky obsessives like me to finally see a movie set in the later Roman Period where the soldiers actually look like late Roman troops, but that was probably expecting too much.

The movie does do some playing around with the timeline of events and with the major characters in the story, but most of this can be excused on dramatic grounds.  In the first half of the story the Prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) is depicted not just as one of Hypatia's students but also as the one who, according to the famous story, publicly declared his love for her and got rebuffed.  It's said the historical Hypatia rejected him by presenting him with rags stained with her menstrual blood and said "This is what you're in love with".  But because the film never bothers to make her neo-Platonist asceticism clear - exactly what her philosophical views might be is never explored except in the vaguest terms - this incident doesn't really make much cultural sense - she comes across as a modern career academic "married to her job" rather than a disciple of the school of Plotinus. 

We know that Synesius (Rupert Evans), who later became Bishop of Cyrene, was one of her students.  And in the movie he comes back into the latter part of the story as well and tries to convince Hypatia to placate her enemies by converting to Christianity.  Finally, a fictional slave, Davus (Max Minghella), is introduced to provide the third element in an unrequited love triangle with Orestes and Hypatia.  All these changes to the historical accounts are fairly tolerable, but where the "history" in the story goes widly off the rails is when Amenábar and fellow screenplay writer Mateo Gil begin their hamfisted sermonising.  Then things get silly.

The Library That Never Was

The screenplay includes sufficient elements and details from the actual historical story to indicate that Amenábar and Gil did enough homework to have been able to depict things as they actually happened.  But this is a movie with a message and an agenda, so these elements get mixed around, downplayed, countered or simply distorted to suit Amenábar's objectives.  More importantly, most of the elements that support the "message" the director is preaching are wholesale fictional inventions.

To begin with, "the Library of Alexandria" forms the focus of the first half of the film.  Amenábar depicts this "Library of Alexandria" as forming the core of the Temple of Serapis - in fact, the Temple itself seems almost an adjunct to it - and it is described as containing "all that remains of the wisdom of men".  This is historically problematic on several fronts.  To begin with, as I detailed in my article last year, there was no "Great Library of Alexandria" as such in the city at this time.  The former Great Library had degraded and suffered several major losses of books over the centuries but it had ceased to exist by this stage - the last clear reference to it that we know of dates all the way back to AD 135.  We do know from several sources that the colonnades of the Serapeum did contain a collection of books at one time and this was a "daughter library" former Great Library's collection.  But Ammianus Marcellinus, who may have visited Alexandria himself when he was in Egypt in the late 360s, refers to the "two priceless libraries" it had once housed in the past tense, indicating they were no longer there by his time.  This fits with the descriptions we have in no less than five sources about the sack and destruction of the Serapeum at the hands of the Christians in AD 391: none of which mention any library or books at all.  This silence is made more significant by the fact that one of these sources was Eunapius of Sardis, who was not only a vehement anti-Christian but also a philosopher himself.  If anyone had an incentive to at least mention this aspect of the destruction it was Eunapius, but he makes no mention of any library or any destruction of books.

So the idea that any "Library of Alexandria" or any library at all was destroyed by the Christian mob in AD 391 is simply without evidential foundation.

Amenábar's screenplay gives some indication that he is aware of at least some of this.  The opening titles (in Spanish) do declare explicitly that in Hypatia's time "Alexandria .... possessed ... the (world's) largest known library" (poseia .... la biblioteca mas grande conocida) and a subtitle a few minutes later declares the site of Hypatia's lecture in the opening scene is "the Library of Alexandria" (Biblioteca de Alejandria).  But later one of the characters mentions " ... the fire that destroyed the mother library ... ", though this is in a piece of background dialogue while Hypatia is saying something else - less attentive viewers may even miss it completely.  Amenábar himself referred in one interview last year to the library in his film as "the second Library of Alexandria", so he clearly understands that the original Great Library no longer existed in AD 391.  But he doesn't exactly go out of his way to make this clear to his audience.  And he not only includes a library in the Serapeum, despite the evidence even this smaller library no longer existed at this point, but makes it the centre and focus of the whole complex.

Not surprisingly, it is also the focus of the scenes of the storming of the Serapeum by the Christian mob that form the climax of the first half of the film.  The accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum make it clear that the mob did not just storm the temple, they tore it to the ground, leaving little more than its foundations.  But the movie doesn't depict this at all.  Apart from toppling the great statue of Serapis and some other vandalism, the Christians leave the building intact and concentrate almost entirely on dragging the scrolls out of the library and burning them in the temple courtyards.  At one point as they swarm through the gate someone can even be heard shouting "Burn the scrolls!", as though this was the whole point of the exercise  So, oddly, Amenábar doesn't bother depicting what the mob did do and concentrates instead on something not even hinted at in the source material.  He wants to keep the emphasis firmly on the idea of Christians as destroyers of ancient knowledge and reason.  One reviewer, accepting this scene as wholly factual, calls it "the movie's most emotionally powerful moment" and says "it really makes you cry".  She's blissfully unaware that the whole scene is almost entirely fiction.

 Alexandrian Street Politics

The second act of the film concentrates on the disputes within the city that led to the murder of Hypatia.  Again, Amenábar and Gil's screenplay indicate that they are aware of some of the complexities of the situation, but their movie's agenda means that it's almost always the Christians who are cast in the worst possible light.  Socrates Scholasticus makes it clear that the political struggle for civic dominance between Bishop Cyril and the prefect Orestes had its origin in the Orestes torturing to death a follower of Cyril's, Hierax, who the Jewish community in the city accused of stirring up emnity against them.  In response, Cyril threatened the Jews, ordering them to "desist from their molestation of the Christians" and the Jews reacted by setting an ambush for Christians in the Church of Alexander, killing a number of them.  Cyril retaliated by setting his mob on the Jews and driving them (or at least some of them) out of the city.

Amenábar depicts some of this tit-for-tat series of threats and violence, but invents a scene where the Taliban-style Parabolani instigate the whole dispute by sneaking into the theatre where the Jews are holding a Sabbath celebration and stoning them.  This is found nowhere in the sources but, once again, Amenábar introduces a fictional incident into the story to make the whole conflict with the Jews and the subsequent feud between Cyril and Orestes into the fault of Cyril's faction - a clear distortion of the reported facts.

He also distorts other incidents in the dispute.  Again, Socrates Scholasticus reports that Cyril made overtures of a negotiated settlement with the prefect, but "when Orestes refused to listen to friendly advances, Cyril extended toward him the book of gospels, believing that respect for religion would induce him to lay aside his resentment." (Socrates, Ecclesiastical History, VII, 13).  Orestes, however, rejected the gesture and refused to be reconciled with the bishop.  A garbled version of this incident appears in the movie, but - yet again - Amenábar adds a fictional scene where Cyril implicitly condemns Orestes, not for supporting the Jews, but for being influcenced by Hypatia: something not mentioned in the sources.  In this scene, during a church service Cyril reads the passage in 1Timothy 2 where Paul orders women to be modest, to submit to men and to be silent and condemns women teaching men.  He then orders Orestes to kneel before the Bible he's just read from in acknowledgement that what Cyril has read is true and Orestes refuses.  Amenábar changes the incident to put its focus on Hypatia, despite the fact this scene is almost totally invented.

The movie then moves from this fictional scene to Cyril ordering the Parabolani to respond by attacking Hypatia.  So while it does make it clear that this was in retaliation for the torture and death of another of Cyril's followers by Orestes and due to the political struggle between the two rivals - which is factual - by inventing a scene where Cyril condemns Hypatia for being a woman who teaches men  Amenábar sets up the idea that this was the also a reason Hypatia was targeted - which is not factual at all.  But it serves his ideological purpose of implying that Hypatia's learning was a major issue, not simply the political faction fighting.

None of the factions come out of the movie looking particularly good, but these invented scenes do their best to cast Cyril and his followers as the instigators of the trouble and make them the clear villains in what was, on all sides, a rather grubby power struggle.  It's very odd that Cyril and most of his Parabolani fanatics are swarthy types who, despite being native Alexandrians, speak with thick Middle Eastern accents.  They also always wear black.  The pagans and members of Orestes' faction, on the other hand, all speak with clipped upper-class English accents and tend to wear white.  The implications here are less than subtle.

Fictional Science and Supposed Atheism

The final major invention by Amenábar which also suits his agenda is the rather fanciful idea that Hypatia was on the brink of not only proving heliocentrism when she was murdered but at establishing Keplerian elliptical planetary orbits into the bargain.  The film makes reference to the fact that Aristarchus of Samos had come up with a heliocentric hypothesis in the 300s BC, and mentions a couple of reasons it was regarded as making "no sense at all" (though doesn't mention the primary one - the stellar parallax problem).  But it invents a series of scenes depicting Hypatia pressing on with this idea despite these (then) not inconsiderable objections.  The whole purpose of these sequences is to make the murder of Hypatia seem like more of a loss to learning at the hands of ignorant fundamentalists.  Hypatia was certainly renowned for her learning, but there is actually no evidence she was any great innovator, let alone that she had any interest at all in Aristarchus' long-rejected hypothesis.  In fact, as the daughter of Ptolemy's most famous ancient editor and commentator, the idea that she would reject the Ptolemaic model of cosmology is pretty far fetched.  Once again, it's Amenábar's invented elements that work to support his agenda of simplifying the story into one of "ignorance and fanaticism versus scholarship and inquiry".

The movie also heavily implies that Hypatia was entirely non-religious or even an atheist - something else not found in any of the source material.  Confronted with the accusation that she is without any religion ("someone who, admittedly, believes in absolutely nothing") Hypatia replies, rather vaguely, "I believe in philosophy".   Later Cyril describes her as "a woman who has declared, in public, her ungodliness".  In fact, of all the pagan schools of thought, the neo-Platonists were the closest to a monotheistic view of the world, which is why first Jewish and then early Christian theologians took on board so much of their philosophy and integrated it into their ideas.  Yet again, Amenábar invents something that has no basis in any of the evidence that suits the sermon his movie is preaching.

Over and over again, elements are added to the story that are not in the source material: the destruction of the library, the stoning of the Jews in the theatre, Cyril condemning Hypatia's teaching because she is a woman, the heliocentric "breakthrough" and Hypatia's supposed irreligiousity.  And each of these invented elements serves to emphasise the idea that she was a freethinking innovator who was murdered because her learning threatened fundamentalist bigots.  The fact that Amenábar needs to rest this emphasis on things he has made up and mixed into the real story demonstrates how baseless this interpretation is.


It may be baseless, but it's receiving a predictably enthusiastic reception by many critics and moviegoers.  One IMDB reviewer certainly got the message, writing a glowing review entitled "Atheists of the all the world unite!". Another notes, "Amenábar made a statement before the screening that if the Alexandria library had not been destroyed, we might have landed on Mars already."  A third declares "I hope the film is appreciated and understood, and that we learn a little bit from its depiction of history so that we can't allow the destruction of art, history, knowledge, and the respect that allows civilizations to flourish."  And these comments are typical.  These viewers accepted all the invented pseudo historical additions to the story without question and happily swallowed the sermon they rest on.

Several blog posts and articles have attempted to counter these distortions of history (notably Father Robert Baron,, Jeffrey Overstreet, and the Catherine of Siena Institute).  All these writers are, however, Christians.  While several of them have attempted to deflect the charge that they are biased by reference to my article of last year (one poster on notes that I am "an atheist, no less!"), I know from my encounters with true believers in The Da Vinci Code that their Christianity will mean these attempts will be generally rejected or ignored - people like to cling to myths that confirm their ideas.

Which means, rather ironically, this film exposes who are the true fundamentalists in this picture.

Friday, May 14, 2010

God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades by Rodney Stark

Rodney Stark, God's Battalions: The Case for the Crusades, (HarperOne, 2009) 276 pages. Verdict?: 2/5  A few good correctives to modern myths, but badly marred by blatant bias, tendentious polemic and weak apologetics.

It is a bit of a cliché that we should study the past to understand the present.  This is something high school history teachers tell children to explain why it is important to study something which seems, to a bored fourteen year old, totally irrelevant to them.  Like many things said by high school history teachers, this one is only partly convincing and really only true to a limited extent.  In deft hands, of course, some careful lessons about the present can be drawn from the past.  Adrian Goldsworthy does this well in his epilogue to The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower and Harvard's Niall Ferguson has made a popular career as an author and TV presenter who can explain the present by examining the past. So long as we do not stretch analogies too far or indulge in simplistic historical determinism, our high school history teachers were correct up to a point.

But it is far more problematic when people start trying to examine the past through the distorting prism of the present.  This has been a temptation that many historians and, more commonly, popularisers of history have fallen into over the years.  It was particularly rife in the Enlightenment, when polemicists like Voltaire and historians like Gibbon portrayed idealised versions of the Romans and presented them, or the better ones at least, pretty much as versions of themselves, except in togas and minus the powdered wigs.  This is why we have a prevalent view of the Romans as tolerant, urbane, rational people who were concerned with great buildings and science and why the common view of them ignores or forgets things like gladiator fights, mass crucifixions, bloody religious persecutions, the annihilation of rebels and the bizarre cluster of irrational superstitions that made up Roman religion.

The Victorians inherited these illusions of a past informed by fantasies of the present and elaborated on them.  To them, for example, the Romans were stout, sensible, no-nonsense chaps who created an Empire for the common good of everyone and only crushed rebellions savagely when the lesser races forgot their place in the scheme of things, by Jove.  Similarly, over in the new nation of Germany, there was a vogue for histories of the early Germanic tribes that leaned heavily on fantasies about some kind of mystical proto-national Germanic spirit which went on to inspire people as varied as Jacob Grimm, Richard Wagner and, unfortunately, Adolf Hitler.  And in the Nineteenth Century the Crusades were seen as romantic adventures where brave chivalric gentlemen left their swooning ladies behind to go off to the hot countries and bash some civilisation into dusky chaps in robes - something Nineteenth Century Europeans were doing with gusto at the time.

The Nineteenth Century also saw the Arab world change its view of the Crusades.  Where before they had, fairly reasonably, been seen as wars they had won, now Western-educated Arabs saw them as precursors to modern European imperialism and colonialism.  This led to some oddities, such as taking the western, romantic view of Saladin as a paragon of gentlemanly chivalry and turning him into an Arab hero as well.  That, in turn, saw modern despots like Saddam Hussein depicting themselves as latter day Saladins - which is richly ironic considering Saladin was actually a Kurd.

More recently the Crusades have generally been depicted as "a bad thing" in the West as well.  Not only is the idea of a holy war in the name of Christianity unpalatable to modern western sensibilities, but many modern commentators accept without question the idea that the Muslim world harbours a centuries-long resentment about the Crusades, when in fact this resentment is less than 150 years old. Sir Steven Runciman's influential three volume history of the Crusades firmly cemented several recent ideas about these expeditions, eg that they were motivated by a desire for Papal power rather than genuine religious zeal, that they were land grabs by western lords and that the Crusaders were bumbling, incompetent military cretins.  Given that he was a Byzantist, his prejudices and biases should have been clear, but these ideas remain firmly entrenched.  They are generally accepted in the popular perception of the Crusades, along with the "fact" that most Crusaders were landless second sons looking for new territory and that the whole thing was motivated primarily by loot and the riches of the East.

All of these perceptions of the Crusades have been given a regular airing since 9/11 and, in particular, in commentary on the Iraq War and the "War on Terror".  But if those recent events have created a distorting perspective for perceptions of the Crusades, Rodney Stark's counter to them distorts far more than it clarifies.

The Crusades as Defensive Wars?  A Tenuous Thesis

Any book subtitled "A Case for the Crusades" is pretty clearly one written with an ideological agenda.   And Stark makes his agenda very clear early in his book - 9/11 is mentioned as early as page 4, which leads into a summary of recent western breast-beating over the Crusades during the Iraq War and its roots in anti-Christian condemnations of them by Voltaire, Hume, Diderot, Fuller and, of course, Gibbon (pp. 6-7).  Having traced the origins of the idea that the Crusaders were nothing more than "greedy barbarians in armor", Stark states his counter-case:

To sum up the prevailing wisdom: during the Crusades, an expansionist, imperialistic Christendom brutalized, looted and colonized a tolerant and peaceful Islam.

Not so.  As will be seen, the Crusades were precipitated by Islamic provocations: by centuries of bloody attempts to colonize the West and by sudden new attacks on Christian pilgrims and holy places. (Stark, p. 8)

He goes on:

[U]nlike most conventional Crusade historians, I shall not begin with the pope's appeal at Clermont, but with the rise of Islam and the onset of Muslim invasions of Christendom.  That's when it all started - in the seventh century, when Islamic armies swept over the larger portion of what was then Christian territory: the Middle East, Egypt and all of North Africa, and then Spain and southern Italy as well as many major Mediterranean islands .... Nor shall I merely recount the crusader battles, for they are comprehensible only in the light of the superior culture and technology that made it possible for European knights to march more than twenty-five hundred miles, to suffer great losses along the way and then to rout far larger Muslim forces.  (Stark, p. 9)
Or, to sum his thesis up in the plaintive cry of a nine year old caught fighting in a school playground: "But THEY started it!"   This argument is not really radically new.  I have been coming across it online regularly since 9/11, particularly from pro-Bush American bloggers and posters who have wanted to argue that Islam is an inherently violent, intolerant and expansionist faith that can only be stopped by some "shock and awe" and invasion and occupation by the God-fearing US military.  It is not even a new thesis to be presented in book form - Robert Spencer's The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) has been a best-seller amongst people with this mindset since its publication in 2005, and it makes exactly the same case.  Essentially, the "THEY started it!" thesis argues that far from being an isolated, innovative and unprovoked assault on the world of Islam from Europe, the Crusades were in fact a courageous and entirely justified counter-strike against the terror of Islam by a besieged Christendom.  In other words, an Eleventh Century equivalent to Bush's doctrine of "fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them here" or "defending the Homeland".

The problem is that this revisionist thesis, like all ideologically-driven attempts at the analysis of history, is every bit as skewed as the ideas it is trying to revise and correct.

"Christendom Strikes Back"

After a brief summary of the period from the death of Muhammad (AD 632) to the sack of Rome by Sicilian Muslims (AD 846) and the rapid Islamic conquests of Syria, Persia, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Sicily and Spain in that period, Stark begins to set the scene for his account of the Crusades by detailing how "Christendom struck back".  He starts with the defeat of Spanish Muslims by the Frankish warlord Charles Martel at Poitiers (or Tours, depending on which account you read) in AD 732 - which he re-elevates to the status of the turning of the Islamic tide and the beginning of a fight-back by "Christendom":  He writes:

As would be expected, some more recent historians have been quick to claim that the Battle of Tours was of little or no significance. (p. 43)
 Actually, current opinion remains divided on whether Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi's defeat  by Charlemagne's grandfather represented a significant turning point in the westward expansion of Islam or simply the defeat of a reconnaissance-in-strength by what was little more than a large raiding party.  Both interpretations have merit, though Stark plumps firmly for the former.  More importantly, Stark champions the idea that the battle represented a tactical turning point, with Martel's stout Frankish infantry forming a new and decisive counter to the light cavalry tactics of the Muslim forces that had seen them conquer so much territory over the preceding century:

It is axiomatic in military science that cavalry cannot succeed against well-armed  and well disciplined infantry formations unless they greatly outnumber them.  The effective role of cavalry is to ride down infantry fleeing from the battlefield, once their lines have given way.  But when determined infantry hold their ranks, standing shoulder to shoulder to present a wall of shields from which they project a thicket of long spears butted to the ground, cavalry charges are easily turned away. .... In this instance, the Muslim force consisted entirely of light cavalry .... Opposing them was an army "almost entirely composed of foot soldiers, wearing mail [armour] and carrying shields".  It was a very uneven match. (p. 41-42) 
 This is all more or less true, but it is also one early example of Stark greatly over-simplifying the military and tactical situation - something he does throughout the book.  To begin with, to pretend Spanish (or any) "Muslim" armies consisted of nothing but light cavalry is nonsense - they included infantry, archers and heavier cavalry troops as well.  Secondly, to claim that this was the first time "Muslim" armies had met "determined infantry" executing the anti-cavalry tactics he describes is ridiculous.  The Byzantine armies that Arab forces had (generally) defeated in the preceding century were based on precisely the stolid infantry, anti-cavalry tactics Stark describes here.  Finally, the battle probably was not the simple "light cavalry breaking on disciplined infantry" affair Stark reduces it to.  David Nicolle, a current leading military historian who is as well-versed in the equipment and tactics of the Islamic east as he is in that of the European west, writes:

The classic interpretation of Charles Martel's victory over a Muslim raiding force at Potiers maintains that the Christian Franks allowed their enemies to dash themselves to pieces against a stern but static defensive array.  Yet this is probably quite wrong; for the evidence could equally well be interpreted as the Franks charging and overrunning the Muslim-Arab camp in an sudden and unexpected assault. (David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book: Volume One - Warfare in Western Christendom, p. 77)
 Here, as in many other places in his book, Stark presents an oversimplified and tendentious interpretation that fits his thesis and ignores, downplays, or is blissfully unaware of more complex, recent or nuanced alternatives.

His tendency to oversimplify things to the point of distorting history continues in his account of the Spanish Reconquista by the Christian kingdoms of the north against the Muslim south.  According to Stark's version, this was very simple - it was a concerted counter-attack by Christians against Muslims in defence of Christendom.  He paints the success of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar - the "El Cid" of legend - in the 1090s as a turning point and holds him up as a paragon of Christian martial vigor against Muslims.  He attributes this "turning of the tide" to the disunity and fractious politics of the silly Muslims:

Perhaps the single most remarkable feature of the Islamic territories was almost ceaseless internal conflict; intricate plots, assassinations and betrayals form a lethal soap opera .... Spain was a patchwork of constantly feuding Muslim regimes that often allied themselves with Christians against one another. (p. 47)
To anyone with even a passing knowledge of Medieval Spanish history, these statements are simply bizarre.  This was not a "remarkable feature" of the "Islamic territories" at all - it was a common feature of all Spanish territories, Christian and Muslim alike.  Like their Muslim neighbours, Christian Spanish rulers indulged in no less of a "lethal soap opera" of intrigues, internecine conflicts and assassinations.  This is simply what Medieval rulers Europe-wide did.  As for Muslims allying themselves with Christians against each other, Stark conveniently neglects to take full account of the fact that Christians did this as well.  His hero, Rodrigo Díaz, spent six years in the service of Yusuf al-Mu'taman ibn Hud of Zaragoza and his successor.  In this time he inflicted defeats on Sancho I of Aragón and Ramón Berenguer II,  Count of Barcelona, capturing the latter in battle and holding him captive on behalf of his Muslim master.  Stark refers to this in passing, but fails to note its significance: these endless wars were not, at this stage anyway, brave counter-strikes by Christians against a tide of Muslim advance, but simply the kind of constant low level jockying for power, dominance and land that marked this period all over Europe.  Unlike Stark, Rodrigo Díaz and his contemporaries paid little heed to whether their lord of the moment went to Mass or attended the mosque.  Once again, Stark edits out the more complex parts that do not support his thesis and presents an oversimplified, dumbed-down version instead.

Stripping the Arabs from Arabic Science

Oversimplifying things is one matter, wilfully distorting them out of pure, unadulterated bias is entirely another.  In his next chapter - Western "ignorance" Versus Eastern "Culture" - Stark embarks on an absurd attempt at denigrating the idea that the Muslim world was greatly more advanced in learning than Europe in this period and tries to pump up an image of Europe as being superior.  It is, without a doubt, the stupidest argument in his whole creaking thesis.

His argument consists almost entirely of pointing to the scholars in the East who were dhimmis rather than Muslims and trying, bizarrely, to claim this meant we cannot claim the undeniably more-advanced scholarship of the Islamic world in the Eleventh Century was "Muslim" - as though ideas have some kind of religious affiliation.  He notes that much of the learning of the Islamic world was Greek in origin and that it had been preserved by Nestorian Christians working under Islamic masters.  This is ridiculous.  Leaving aside the fact that there were still many eastern scholars who were Muslims (because Stark certainly, and conveniently, leaves that aside), to claim that this means the Islamic world did not have a flourishing intellectual culture while the West remained almost totally ignorant of this (to them) lost Greek learning is absurd.  It is like claiming that there was no Carolingian Renaissance because Alcuin, Peter of Pisa, Paul the Deacon, Theodulf of Orléans and Joseph Scottus were not Franks.  Regardless of the ethnic or religious affiliations of some of the scholars that gave rise to the flowering of learning in this period, to pretend that this somehow means the east was not vastly more advanced than the west at this stage is simply stupid.

By the time I got to the part where Stark seriously tries to argue that the use of "Arabic" numerals in the east is not significant because they were actually originally "Hindu" (p. 59), this reader was about ready to throw Stark's idiotic book at the wall.

But it gets dumber.  In a section entitled "Contrasts in Technology" Stark embarks on an even more ludicrous attempt at arguing that the east was technologically less advanced than Europe as well.  While some of the evidence he draws on here is legitimate - Europeans did invent, refine and exploit some significant technology in this period - to stretch that fact into the idea that the "Muslim" world was technologically backward is simply stupefying.  It also includes some statements which are not just totally wrong, but hilariously so.  For example, when discussing the development of heavier armour in Medieval Europe, Stark claims that the mail hauberks of the Eleventh Century were somehow superior even to the elaborate plate armour of the later European Middle Ages:

These (plate) suits came later and only some knights of the heavy cavalry ever wore them, as they were dangerously impractical.  Knights in plate-armor suits had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms; if they fell off they could not rise to their feet to fight on.  (pp. 71-72)
Apart from the words "these suits came later", every single thing in these two sentences is totally and completely wrong.  Plate harness was worn by knights, by their retainers and by everyone else who could possibly get their hands on it precisely because it was not "dangerously impractical" (were these knights morons?) but because it was incredibly effective.  It was only abandoned when firearms and attendant infantry tactics reduced this effectiveness to make it not worth the expense - about 200-300 years later.  The idea that armoured knights "had to be lifted onto their saddles by booms" is a Nineteenth Century myth, with its origin in a novel by Mark Twain.  And far from being unable to rise from their feet if unhorsed, knights in full plate harness could run, jump and literally turn cartwheels in their armour, as modern re-enactors like to demonstrate to crowds today.  This kind of elementary blunder would shame an undergraduate history student (who would probably be capable of the quick Google search required to show it is total garbage anyway), but it seems Stark did his research by reading Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court or watching Olivier's 1944 movie of Henry V.

Stark ends this monumentally stupid and error-riddled chapter with another of his clumsy excursions into military history in which he paints the crossbow as some kind of unbeatable über-weapon and makes out that the Crusaders were militarily superior to their Muslim enemies in every respect.  Again, this is garbage.  In a survey of 48 Crusader versus Muslim battles I did a few years ago I found the Crusaders won 26 and the Muslims won 21.  The two sides were actually very evenly matched.  This is hardly surprising, since for most of the Crusades, both sides used similar weapons, similar armour and, once the Crusaders adopted the very light cavalry troops Stark dismisses, similar troop types and tactics.

Stark Gets It WRONG

Stark's next section attempts to dismiss the idea that the Crusades were "unprovoked" and catalogues the Muslim atrocities and attacks on pilgrims that he claims were the "real" reasons the Crusades were launched.  What is notable to any objective observer here is actually how little material he has to work with and how far back he has to go (mostly to the Eighth and Ninth Centuries) to find it.  Of course, there were periodic pogroms against Christians in the Islamic world and sometimes Christian pilgrims were harassed.  But if we imagine a situation where there were Muslim enclaves in western Europe or large groups of (heavily armed) Islamic pilgrims regularly journeying to, say, central Eleventh Century France, do we really suppose we would not see much the same thing happening?

That aside, these incidents and things like the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in 1009 were the exceptions, not the rule.  In addition, they do not feature in the reasons the Crusaders themselves gave for their expeditions in anything but the most peripheral way.

This last point can be extended into a key criticism of Stark's wider thesis as well.  If the Crusades were, as he tries to argue, simply a reaction to Muslim encroachment into the European "homeland", why is it we do not see this reflected in any of the enormous amount of material we have on the preaching of the First Crusade or any of the material we have on the motivations of the Crusaders?  Did Pope Urban and the other instigators of the Crusades forget to mention this?  And if this was the "true" motivation of the Crusaders, then launching a vastly expensive and highly dangerous 2500 mile long-distance military strike into Palestine, of all places, was an extremely weird way to carry it out.  It is not like Jerusalem was the religious heartland of Islam (that was Arabia) or even its political centre (that was, if anything, Cairo) or even its intellectual centre (which was Baghdad).

If the real objective was to turn back the teeming tides of fanatical Muslim expansion from the gates of Europe, as Stark tries to make out, then the obvious target was far closer to home: in Spain.  Stark even mentions, in passing, that one of Urban's papal predecessors, Alexander II, had already tried to stir the knights of Europe into joining the Spanish Christian kingdoms in attacking Muslim states in Spain back in 1063 , but the result was less than spectacular even by Stark's own fumbling admission:

The response was very modest.  A small number of Frankish knights seem to have ventured into Spain and their participation may have helped recover more Muslim territory, but no significant battles were fought. (p. 46)
 So we are supposed to believe that, in 1063, a Papal call to meet the the supposedly pressing need to defend a beleaguered Europe from Islamic expansion could only muster up "a small number of Frankish knights", despite a promise of remission of sins for those who embarked, yet just 32 years later it sparked a mass movement, armies in the hundreds of thousands and wars that lasted over 200 years in a land 2500 miles from home?  This simply makes zero sense.

Stark is clearly wrong.  Plenty of solid scholarly work has been done in the last 60 years on the real motivations behind the Crusading ideal - millennial ideas about the coming apocalypse, idealised visions of Jerusalem not as a place but a mystical concept, the increasing alignment of knighthood with religious ideals, the outward expansion of western Europeans in all directions etc - but there is no evidence that they were ever seen as defensive wars against enemies encroaching on Europe, as the Spanish example clearly demonstrates.

Motivations and Biases

Thankfully not everything in Stark's book is as bad as the biased nonsense that makes up most of its early chapters.  In the remainder of the book, which actually dwindles into a heavily abbreviated Wikipedia-style summary of the Crusades' history that adds very little to his thesis, he does manage to correct a few common and pernicious myths about the Crusades and the motivations of the Crusaders.  Modern westerners have a distinct difficulty with the idea that people could actually have been genuinely motivated by religious piety - especially the rather alien and distastefully bellicose piety of the Crusades - and cast around for other, more "likely" motivations that make more sense to them.  One idea is that the "real" motivation for Pope Urban was not assistance for the Byzantine Empire in regaining the Holy Land, but a crafty attempt by him to win Jerusalem so as to undermine and dominate the Orthodox Church.  So it was not about piety, they argue, but a Papal power grab.  This popular idea has its origins in Carl Erdmann's influential Die Enstehung des Kreuzzugsgedanken (The Origin of the Idea of Crusade (1935), but it does not stand up to scrutiny.  Actually, Urban was as surprised as anyone that his call led to a mass movement - he expected a few thousand knights to answer the call - and had no idea that the First Crusade would be abandoned by the Byzantine emperor and then go on, against all odds, to win the Holy Land on its own.  This was certainly not something he planned in advance, though I doubt he would have been unhappy about it if he had lived to see the Crusade, contrary to all reasonable expectation, achieve that objective unassisted.

Stark also manages to debunk another common myth about the Crusades - that they were actually carried out to win copious loot from the rich Levant and that they were undertaken by landless second, third and fourth sons in a massive colonial land snatch.  As meticulous recent research by Christopher Tyerman and Jonathan Riley-Smith has shown in great detail, going on Crusade was far more likely to bankrupt the Crusader and his family than win them riches.  Despite this, as Tyerman has shown, the same families continued to send Crusaders east for several generations and to wear the ruinous cost of doing so.  Clearly something other than riches was motivating these people.  The idea of landless second sons heading east to carve out territories to settle may also fit with modern ideas of likely motivations, but it also does not fit the evidence.  Apart from some notable exceptions - Bohemond and Tancred and their Normans spring to mind - most of the Crusaders did not go east to settle on new land at all.  In fact, the ultimate failure of the Crusader States of Outremer was precisely due to this not happening.  Instead of settling in the east, the overwhelming majority of Crusaders served their time in Outremer and then went home.  The Crusader States were, from their beginning to their end, desperately short of military manpower for exactly this reason and ultimately collapsed as a result.  This is partly because the "landless second, third and fourth sons" idea is also a myth.  The men that the Crusades attracted were far from "landless" and the history of the Crusades is riddled with accounts of men who did their "pilgrimage in arms", killed their quota of infidel "paynims" and then had to head home because of the pressing need to get back to their European estates.

As odd and unpalatable as it may be to modern people, the primary motivation of Crusaders seems to have been religious piety.  It was usually a form of piety that modern observers find bizarre and was often one informed by myth and a weird idealism that we find hard to reconcile with modern Christianity or with any modern ideas at all, but the evidence is overwhelming that it was genuine and highly motivating.

The few things that Stark manages to get right do not outweigh the fact that his central thesis is nonsense and that his whole argument is contrived, oversimplified and, in places, plain stupid and riddled with basic errors of fact.  Stark is not a historian and in this book it really shows.  He had some success with his first major book on the history of Christianity, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. At least in that book he stuck more or less to his discipline, sociology, and actually provided some useful insights for real historians from that perspective.  In more recent years, however, he has moved from being a self-described agnostic to something he calls "an independent Christian" and his books have become more popularist and, in the process, have veered into pseudo historical apologetics.  In The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success he presents a rather bungled and mangled version of the idea that Christianity led to the rise of western science.  This is a case that can certainly be argued, and has been set out, with far more accuracy, clarity and finesse by James Hannam's God's Philosophers, as I detail in my review of that excellent book below.  But Stark's hamfisted attempt at making this case in his book has left him wide open to attack from biased ideologues of the opposite stamp, most recently in the anti-theist polemicist Richard Carrier's chapter on the subject in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails.  I hope to say more about why people like Carrier are no better than Stark in a future post, but the point remains that Stark may or may not be a good sociologist, but he is an appalling historian.  And the last person you want producing popularisations of history.

In summary, this book is, despite a few valid points, largely tendentious crap.  Its author is a poor researcher who starts with his ideologically-driven conclusion and then cherry picks the evidence to back it up.  It is a polemical exercise in apologetics dressed up as a scholarly revision of myths and it deserves little but scorn.  Avoid it if you can, or read it with its biases firmly in mind if you must.  But take nothing it says at face value.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower by Adrian Goldsworthy

Adrian Goldsworthy, The Fall of the West: The Death of the Roman Superpower    (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2009) 531 pages Verdict?: 4/5 A compelling contribution in a closely-contested field.

 Those of us interested in the fall of the Roman Empire have had a surfeit of riches over the last five years.  In 2005 we had both Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History of Rome and the Barbarians and Bryan Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome: And the End of Civilization.  Then last year we got James J. O'Donnell's The Ruin of the Roman Empire: A New History (reviewed here) and Christopher Kelly's The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome. So just when we could be forgiven for thinking that no more good books on the subject are likely to appear for a while, Roman history heavyweight Adrian Goldsworthy enters the ring with a 500+ page tome that goes the distance with all of the above.

Goldsworthy's book not only draws on the work of the other scholars mentioned, particularly Ward-Perkins, but it is also a counter and response to them as well, and he has Peter Heather in his sights in particular.  Heather's book was the first major narrative history of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire seen for many years.  The story he tells has all the elements of a ripping yarn - wars, court intrigues, barbarian invasions, battles, plots, assassinations - and, as an unabashed Germanicist myself, I could not help but be compelled by his emphasis on the centrality of the barbarian invasions in the whole affair even while never quite being convinced by his argument.  Because Heather's version of the story, simply put, says the Empire did not crumble from within but was crushed from without.  According to Heather, the Empire in the late Fourth Century was essentially strong, the Army large and highly effective and things were generally stable.  But then the arrival of the Huns triggered a cascade of events that sent large, highly-militarised Germanic peoples crashing into the borders of the Empire.  The Eastern half coped largely by diverting these people westward and so the West was eventually overwhelmed and collapsed.

Goldsworthy, however, is having none of this.  Noting both Bryan Ward-Perkins and Heather's recent books he writes:

Each of these books is extremely good in its own way, but both are restricted in what was possible to cover.  Neither makes much effort to link the empire of the fourth century to the earlier empire.  Yet this connection needs to be made if we are to understand more fully what the Roman Empire was like and discern why it did eventually fall. (Goldsworthy, p.21)
He then spends the best part of the first half of his book making precisely this connection and, in the process, calling into serious question the basis of Heather's argument: that the Empire of the Fourth Century was essentially stable, solid and secure.

The Calamitous Third Century or "Who's Emperor Now?"

One of the reasons Heather is able to present the Fourth Century as comparatively stable, solid and secure is that the Third Century was anything but.  While Heather and Ward-Perkins both begin their accounts in the late Fourth Century, on the eve of the epoch-changing Battle of Adrianople, Goldsworthy takes his story all the way back to the death of Marcus Aurelius in AD 180.  The accession of his feckless and, ultimately, disastrous son Commodus marked the end of the long period of peace and stability of the Antonine Dynasty and the beginning of almost one hundred years of civil war, usurpers, rebellions, fragmentation, and multiple emperors known as "the Crisis of the Third Century" or, more succinctly, "the Military Anarchy".  Goldsworthy argues persuasively that what happened to the Western Empire in the Fifth Century can only be understood in the context of the turmoil of 200 years earlier.

And he tells the story of the turmoil well, while at the same time carefully laying the analytical foundations of the argument of the second half of his book.  Things were already on a downward slide when Alexander Severus succeeded his bizarre, possibly insane and ultimately assassinated cousin Elagabalus in AD 222.  But they went from bad to worse when he was challenged for the throne by Maximinus Thrax and then unceremoniously murdered in AD 235.  What followed was pure chaos.  In the next 20 years the Roman Empire was to have no less than 20 and possibly as many as 25 different emperors in rapid succession  - often several at a time, which is why it is hard to pin down the actual number.  In fact, this section of Goldsworthy's book becomes something of a bewildering succession of rising and falling emperors, with sometimes two or three succeeding to the purple only to be assassinated by the Praetorian Guard within a single paragraph.

By AD 258 the chaos had got to the point where the Roman Empire had broken into three independent pieces: the provinces of Gaul, Spain and Britain split from the Empire in the west while the provinces of Syria, Palestine and Egypt formed the "Palmyrene Kingdom" in the east, with the rump of Rome between the two.  Aurelian managed to pull things back together during his five year reign before he too was assassinated.  He was followed by no less than six more emperors in nine years before some measure of real stability was finally imposed by Diocletian.

As interesting as this rapid cavalcade of emperors, usurpers and assassinations is, Goldsworthy uses it to make pertinent points about the two centuries which followed and which led to the fall of the Empire.  Firstly, he notes how barbarian invasions are a symptom of Roman weakness and instability, not a cause of it.   Over and over again during the Third Century renewed bouts of Roman civil strife invited larger and deeper raids by barbarians over the Rhine and Danube.  This culminated in the massive land and seaborne raids on the eastern Empire by large Gothic and Herulian warbands in the AD 260s that was only finally brought to an end by Claudius II Gothicus in AD 269.  That this barbarian reaction to Roman weakness - the Empire was at the lowest ebb of the Third Century crisis at the time - is a clear prefigurement of the later barbarian incursions and settlements in the west in the Fifth Century is a point that Goldsworthy makes very clearly.

Secondly, he notes that the "reforms" which are often said to have stabilised the Empire and brought the "Military Anarchy" to an end actually weakened it in the long run.  He points out that the Empire was and had always been a military dictatorship.  Augustus had created it out of years of civil war by winning the struggle for military supremacy.  But what he created was what Goldsworthy refers to as "a veiled monarchy".  Though he was a military dictator who won control by force of arms, Augustus and his First and Second Century successors created a facade whereby they (and everyone else) pretended they ruled by consent, particularly by the consent of the Senate and the Senatorial class.  In return, trusted Senators could receive relatively powerful (and rich) provincial governorships and other honours.  The whole arrangement worked well and was in some ways inherently stable.  The small number of Senators with any real power - ie ones who controlled rich provinces with large armies - could be carefully chosen and the remainder stayed in Rome where they could be carefully watched.  The only major instability was the fact that while everyone was pretending that the emperors were not really kings, the whole idea of the succession to the throne-that-was-not-meant-to-be-a-throne was a murky one.  Despite this, civil wars were rare in the first two centuries of the Empire and the whole system worked.

But when it broke down in the Third Century the veil was torn off and the Imperial system was exposed as the military dictatorship it had always been.  So now it became clear that any Senator who could win the support of enough of the Army or, failing that, who could simply bribe the increasingly mercenary and predatory Praetorian Guard, could become emperor, albeit (in most cases) very briefly.  All it took was a reverse in a foreign war against the resurgent Sassanid Persians or the increasingly bold Germanic barbarians and a usurper would appear or the Army or the Guard would mount an assassination and the whole process would repeat itself, seemingly on a shorter and shorter cycle of usurpation, civil war and anarchy.

This cycle became so intense that the primary goal of a Roman emperor was no longer wise rule and stability but mere survival.  As the Third Century progressed changes were put in place - changes that were aimed solely at reducing the threat of usurpation.  Senators were gradually excluded from military commands, since a Senator with a sizeable portion of the Army at his back was a usurper in waiting.  But by giving more and more commands to the lower, equestrian order the emperors simply pushed the opportunity for usurpation down the Roman food chain and actually broadened the numbers of those who took it into their heads to jostle for the purple.  The size, and therefore the garrisons, of the provinces were steadily reduced, since this left a governor of any given province with fewer troops with which to mount a challenge.  But this in turn weakened the Empire militarily and strategically, since a governor no longer had the military force to deal with serious local threats himself.  Incursions over the frontiers by barbarians increased in size and number and only the Emperor had the capacity to deal with them.  Cities which had been unfortified for centuries began building walls for protection, both against barbarians and against the next cycle of civil wars.

So while these and similar changes - often called "reforms" - brought the Crisis to an end, Goldsworthy makes a strong case that in the longer run the Empire was weakened and that the seeds of the collapse of the Fifth Century were sown in the chaos of the Third.

 The Fourth Century - Recovery?

Thus the greater stability of the Fourth Century, from the long reign of Diocletian onwards, is according to Goldsworthy, something of an illusion.  The cycle of constant usurpation and assassination slowed, but it did not stop.  The concentration of military power in the hands of the emperor meant civil wars were fewer, but the sheer size of the Empire meant there was always going to be a subordinate somewhere with sufficient troops to mount a challenge.  Diocletian recognised that no emperor could protect himself by concentrating power in his hands and still rule a territory as large as Rome's effectively, so he created the tetrachy - four subordinate rulers to whom he could delegate authority and military power.  While this seemed fine in theory, in practice the tetrarchs were soon at each others' throats and Diocletian had to come back from cultivating cabbages in retirement to restore order.  Constantine solved that problem by eliminating his brother emperors and ruling alone, but his successors showed that it took a powerful and utterly ruthless individual to do this and before long the informal division of the Empire into eastern and western halves became increasingly formal and, eventually, permanent.  By the end of the Fourth Century the Eastern and Western Empire were increasingly going their separate ways and this was always going to be bad news for the poorer and less populous West.

Goldsworthy is very cautious about making claims about things for which we have scanty evidence.  Grandiose claims have been made about the economy of the later Roman Empire, for example.  But he is careful to note that we simply do not have the data to draw any clear conclusions about the role of the economy in the collapse of the West because we simply do not have enough information.   That said, it is clear that a divided Empire, however much more  manageable it was in the short term, was always going to be less powerful and stable in the long run.  And it was always likely that the less prosperous and less populated Western half was going to have the harder time bearing the burdens of a large army and expensive defences against external threats.

But Goldsworthy also makes it clear that the seeds of the final Fall were sown way back in the Third Century, took root in the supposed "recovery" of the less chaotic Fourth Century and bloomed into inevitable disaster in the calamitous Fifth Century.  Because the reaction of the emperors of the Fourth Century to the upheaval of the previous era was to centre their rule around one thing: survival.  The army was reorganised not simply to defend against invaders and to operate against the Persians, but also to do so without giving generals or provincial subordinates sufficient individual military power to mount a challenge for the purple.  Likewise provinces became smaller not with a view to administrative efficiency (they vastly increased the local bureaucracies in fact), but to decrease the power of their administrators.  So paranoid were Fourth Century emperors about usurpations that a mere hint of disloyalty could spark purges of whole families, informers and spies thrived on rumours and a good way to get rid of someone you disliked was to imply they had designs on the Imperial throne.  Owning anything that so much as looked like Imperial regalia could get you killed, which led to some comical scenes where actual usurpers had to be robed in a cloak of patched-together purple military pennons or crowned with a lady's necklace because having the real items to hand would be too dangerous.

The other way the emperors insulated themselves from the threat of usurpation and assassination was by retreating physically.  This not only meant emperors became increasingly remote figures in inaccessible courts, shielded by layers of courtiers, functionaries and court ceremonial and ritual, but also that by the early Fifth Century the Western Emperor had withdrawn to the well-defended but remote city of Ravenna and ran his dwindling Empire through powerful chamberlains and commanders-in-chief.  It was only a matter of time before the Western Emperor increasingly became little more than a symbol and figurehead and the powers behind the throne became the real players. 

Not with a Bang, But a Whimper

The final third of Goldsworthy's book tells the story of the end - the last 76 years of the Western Roman Empire when things began to unravel and then spiralled increasingly out of control until total collapse was inevitable.  The narrative elements are familiar enough from other treatments of the story from Hodgkin to Heather - the irruption of the Vandals, Alans and Sueves over the frozen Rhine in the beginning of the century, the Visigoths and Burgundians going from settled federates to rebels to political players in their own right, the last desperate defence against Attila's raids, the abandonment of Britain and the loss of Africa and, finally, the deposition of little Romulus Augustulus.  The strength of Goldsworthy's treatment lies in how he ties this accelerating spiral of loss of control to the trends that had their roots in the "Military Anarchy" of the Third Century.

With the Western Emperor now so insulated from potential usurpation that he was effectively politically marginalised, court functionaries and supreme commanders - the Magister Militae - battled for real power.  That is, when they were not fending off the claims of a new wave of usurpers, who appeared to challenge for the dwindling power of a shrinking Western Empire.  At several key points the West was too busy fighting civil wars to defend itself and all too often warbands of invaders - themselves usually fairly small - moved into territory unopposed.  Some provinces were deliberately or effectively abandoned by the military, such as Britain and northern Gaul.  In other cases warbands, such as that of Alaric, were preserved rather than crushed so as to use them as a cheap source of trained troops.  Either way, the effect was slow but accelerating loss of territory which, once Africa was lost to a (small) band of Vandals, became impossible to reverse.

Goldsworthy also has some scorn for the idea that the later Western Roman Army was as large as some modern writers make out.  He has little time for those who take the units listed in the famous Notitia Dignitatum at face value, arguing that this was simply an idealised listing of units that, by that stage, largely existed on paper.  Here Goldsworthy the primarily military historian is worth paying some attention to:

At times, when reading descriptions by modern historians of warfare in this period, it is difficult to avoid the image of Hitler in his last days, planning grand offensives on a map with divisions that had long since ceased to exist. (Goldsworthy, pp. 289-90)
He notes that territories which, according to the Notitia, should have been garrisoned with powerful elite units of comitatenses, such as Spain, are crossed and recrossed by barbarian warbands seemingly at will.  The internal struggles of the Western Empire took up what real troops remained, as effective as they were, and the paper units of the Notitia could not defend Britain or retake Africa.

In the end the distractions of civil war and usurpation meant that an already weaker and poorer Western Empire was nibbled at its edges and then from within by barbarians, who had always taken advantage of Roman weakness.  Finally the loss of territory meant there was no money and no army to hold even what was left together.  The emperorship became so debased that the last puppets who held the title were barely worth deposing.  Even the once coveted supreme military title of magister utriusquae militiae became not worth keeping - the Burgundian prince Gundobad rose to this rank, but gave it up to pursue royal power amongst his tribe instead.  When the last emperor, the teenager Romulus Augustulus, was finally deposed he was considered so worthless and harmless that he was not even seen as worth killing.  He was given a pension and sent to live with his relatives in the country.  The once great Empire of the Romans no longer existed because no-one saw it as worth maintaining.

This is an excellent book and one, even though it comes after a succession of excellent books on the subject, that will be hard to top for some time to come.  Leaving aside the fact that it is a fine narrative history, Goldworthy brings an outsider's eye to the period, coming to it without the assumptions of a Late Antiquity specialist.  But as more of a specialist in the beginnings of the Empire, he brings an interesting perspective to its end.  This book is both a reply and, at the same time an equal counterweight to Peter Heather's equally excellent work and I would encourage anyone who read, enjoyed and was convinced by either one to read the other.  I think they would profit from the exercise.